Presentation Notes: 2007-2008

Old Houses and the People Who Lived in Them

Presented by Britt Beedenbender - September 12, 2007

Notes by Jeanne Carley

In a series of slides of historical homes on Cape Cod, Britt Beedenbender, an architectural historian, showed some unusual houses and discussed their interesting owners-notable early colonists, eccentrics, philanthropists, wealthy sea captains, scientists, and successful entrepreneurs. Britt, of Danish-Rumanian ancestry, is the author of Images of America Series, Centerville, and former director of the Centerville Historical Museum. She feels that houses reflect our ancestors' way of life and are important for learning more about them.

The Sears Homestead, Dennis, c. 1719. Richard Sears had moved to Cape Cod from Marblehead. Sears was one of 44 colonists who settled in Yarmouth in 1664 on Quivet Neck (which later became Dennis) on land purchased from Governor Bradford's widow. It's believed the house was built by Samuel Sears on a seven-acre parcel which includes the Sears Cemetery. Built quickly for shelter with two chambers, it was later extended as a saltbox. It faces Old County Way, an old footpath for natives evolving into a dirt cart-path for colonists.

The Nye House, East Sandwich, c 1765-1770, also known as the Laurel Grove Asylum, is a Colonial clapboard house. Peleg Nye, born in 1743, married Sarah Bursley in 1770 and brought up eight children here. Their son Bethuel Nye then sold the home to Rufus Conant of the well-known educational family in 1832. Later their daughter, Abigail Conant Cook, lived there with her daughter, Alice Rebecca Cook, who cared for three mentally insane patients from 18951903. Supposedly, there were so many raccoons being fed and entertained there, that the "raccoon parties" caused a friend and nature writer, Thornton W. Burgess, to write a book, "Aunt Sally's Friends in Furs". The animal night club continued until poor health forced her to leave the house.

Edward Gorey's Elephant House Museum, Yarmouthport, circa 1810-1820, was the former home of the famed book and magazine illustrator. Gorey was a prize-winning set designer of the Cape Cod and Broadway show, Dracula. He also designed the unusual graphics for the PBS Mystery series still being used. It's thought this original full Cape-style house was named for a toilet in the shape of an elephant or possibly its ramshackle appearance resembled elephant skin. Born in Chicago, Gorey studied at the Chicago Art Institute and Harvard, and lived in New York City. He later moved to the Cape and died a few years ago. His younger relatives, who live on the Cape, now give tours of the house, which is decorated in true Gorey fashion-brackets resembling bats, assemblages of curiosities, and much of his macabre work,including stuffed frogs and lots of black cats. As an animal lover who wore many fur coats, he later rejected them and gave most of his money to animal charities. Tombstones for cats remain outside under a giant magnolia tree.

Ferdinand Kelley's Greek Revival House, Centerville, c. 1835 was built by a town philanthropist who began the early "Green Movement" on Cape Cod. Its goal was to replace trees on the depleted land, whose trees had furnished wood for salt-making, ship-building and other industries. Its style was adapted from the ancient Greek classical style with large columns, gables, heavy cornices, pediments and other attributes so familiar in government buildings. In the 1860's, Kelley, the postmaster for 59 years, bought a tract of land on one side of the former Post Office. Here he created Monument Square, which he donated to Barnstable County commemorating the men who served in the Civil War. It now includes monuments for servicemen in later wars.

Marston Estate, Centerville, 1881. Built in Queen Anne style architecture, primarily the "Shingle style" of famed Bostonian architect, Richardson, and the Stanford, Mead and White architectural firms. Its first owner was Howard Marston whose father, Russell, was a retired sea-captain; he sold his ship to cook in Boston restaurants. Howard, an abolitionist, worked with his father in the restaurant business, then retired in Centerville. He had married his neighbor's daughter, Ella Kelley, and built the house with a speakeasy in his basement. Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape designer of New York's Central Park and Boston's "Emerald Necklace" fame, designed the 20-plus acres of beautiful English-style gardens. Marston gave 20 acres to the New York Archdiocese when Cardinal Francis Spellman was head. Other notable owners were Herbert and Natalie Kalmus of movie Technicolor fame who named it "Fernbrook". They divorced but still lived together in the home for 20 years and during that time, many Hollywood people and politicians visited there. Later Cardinal Spellman moved there where he was visited by President Kennedy. The house has now been restored to its early Shingle style and its black paint removed.

Balveron, the home of Lorenzo Dow Baker, 1908 was owned by Wellfleet's best known non-resident who made his fortune in the banana trade. Baker was an entrepreneur who apprenticed as a cook to a sea captain as a young boy. He became a fishing captain and married his childhood sweetheart in 1881. He developed his business after visiting Jamaica, bringing mining equipment there and where he tasted bananas for the first time. He brought them back to Jersey City, and sold them at $2 a bunch - a very lucrative market. Baker's Boston Fruit Company eventually merged with their southern competitor and became United Fruit; in the 1970's it changed to United Brands and in 1990, dubbed itself Chiquita Brands International after its advertising gimmick, Miss Chiquita. Later he built the first tourist hotel in Wellfleet, which was later destroyed by a 1931 storm. Baker became a philanthropist to his church and community.

Edward Hopper House, Truro, 1933. The famous New York painter and his wife, Josephine, first rented a cottage during the summers in South Truro called Birdcage Cottage. Later he built this simple Cape house where he painted from the 1930's to the 1960's. His home was built on a cliff overlooking the bay with no electricity until 1934. In his sparse images of his friends' simple homes and diners, he showed how modern life was evolving.

Joseph Lincoln's Boyhood Home, Brewster, 1870: Lincoln, the storyteller, was born in this house and was raised by his mother there. He was inspired by his mother's tales of the sea as she had accompanied her sea captain husband on many voyages similar to other Cape Cod wives. (Editor's note: Lincoln later built an imposing large house on Shore Road in Chatham and lived there during the summers.)

Captain Edward Penniman House, Eastham, 1868. Constructed in the Mansard-style, this fanciful structure was owned by Captain Penniman and his wife, Betsy Augusta (Gutsy) who sailed the seas. Penniman signed on a schooner as a cook at age 11 and eventually became one of the most successful whalers in the world. He and his family chose New Bedford as their home port. After retiring at age 53 to his childhood home, Fort Hill, he wanted to showcase his wealth with this overblown and ornate style; it was adapted from the French and was becoming popular in America's wealthy communities. Its facade boasts of "coins" (cornerstones), lots of dentil molding on pedimented dormers, egg and dart molding, a fretted balustrade, Corinthian columns, and of course, a curved Mansard roof. They lived here until his death in 1913.

Captain Rodney J. Baxter House, Barnstable, 1855. It was designed in an octagonal style, by Orson Squire Fowler who wrote The Octagon House: A House for All in 1849. A phrenologist, (someone who determined a person's character by the shape of his head), Fowler felt the octagon configuration was more efficient to heat and cool, letting in more light. Indoor plumbing was utilized as well as dumb waiters. It was a short-lived vogue for some homebuilders in the 1850's and few octagon houses remain today. They did not prove to be practical. Its owner, Captain Baxter, was famous for guiding his clipper ships around the world.

The Ayling Estate, Centerville, 1922. A Virginia Georgian Revival-style mansion, it was built by Charles Lincoln Ayling, an entrepreneur and benefactor born in 1875 and the son of a Civil War soldier. An investment banker, Ayling was a board member of many companies, including the John Hancock Insurance Company. During his life, the Cape was changing with railroads and cars so many men left to work in Boston. When he built his retirement home, it was the "McMansion" of the time with over 20 rooms, large columns, a massive bar, wine-cellar, and a rifle range. This successful businessman had a big impact on Cape Cod: he helped build the Hyannis hospital and airport; in the village, he built a library and donated his art and antiques to the historical society. He also funded the Dennis Playhouse and was instrumental in bringing electricity to Cape Cod. Ayling was the first person to drive a car here, a Stanley Steamer, in 1901.

Currently, J. Craig Ventor, the maverick biologist who experimented with his own DNA, lives there. One of the leading scientists for his visionary contribution to genomic research, he has also started a company dedicated to using microorganisms to produce ethanol and hydrogen as alternative fuels.



See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.